Friday, August 31, 2007


To get you in the mood for the weekend, every Friday we'll be celebrating 'FRIDAY NIGHT FEVER', featuring an old New York nightlife haunt, from the dance halls of 19th Century Bowery, to the massive warehouse spaces of the mid-90s. Past entries can be found here

I was reading Vanishing New York's piece yesterday on the absurd descent of condos and high fashion culture onto the Meatpacking District, into an area that still, well, processes meat. And it got me thinking of the days when that area was a lot less burdened with designer clothing stores. The days when its aesthetic was dictated not by fashionistas and the upwardly mobile, but by burly leathermen and transsexual prostitutes.

In the '80s and '90s, Meatpacking was host to some truly 'alternative' nightclubbing options. For the gay leather set, you had The Lure (featured in the controversial 80s Al Pacino flick Cruising), while straight folks with debauched inclinations had the Hellfire Club. The still operating Hogs & Heifers, with its mountain of discarded bras, made the East Village's Coyote Ugly seem like a classic three-star restaurant. (Hogs has since lapsed into a camp tourist destination.)

But lording over the region was the dark and quirky Mother, a small, caverned club that found its niche as a freakshow outside the universe of the '90s mega-clubs. And no evening at Mother quite resonated throughout the city as Jackie 60, the Tuesday night party of kooks and costume.

What set it apart from the mega-clubs was its unique sense of creativity and inclusiveness. In fact, its creators Chi Ci Valenti and Johnny Dynell specifically designed it to emulate the fertile spirit of late '70s places like the Mudd Club (featured in our very first Friday Night Fever article).

According to Chi Chi, "We decided to create a place in the spirit of those smaller clubs. And when someone who used to go to a place like the Mudd Club walks in to Jackie and says, "This feels like those days," well, that's when I feel like we've really done our job."

The two met at the Mudd Club and soon created a party together that took some of the neighborhood ideas (remote locale, S&M and sexual imagery) and combined it with striking costumes and themes, incorporating punk, drag and theater. They soon added British fashion designer Kitty Boots and choreographer Richard Move to the mix, and the flamboyant stage was set.

Unlike the spirit of exclusivity that possessed the monster doormen at big clubs, Jackie 60 drew a wide range of people, the only criteria being a flair for the dramatic -- and the guts and confidence to exhibit it. As Dynell describes it, "For example, you never know what somebody is here. They could be anything. They could be straight. They could be straight to bed. At Jackie we have an expression: For every cup there is a saucer."

Frequent special guest Deborah Harry (seen in the pic at the top and below) being the exception, celebrities like Mick Jagger, Marc Jacobs, Jack Nicholson, and Robert Deniro came through and were barely noticed. How could you be noticed?

Along with a 'classic dress code' (attire within reason, basically), Jackie 60 frequently had an inspired weekly dress code. For example, on Bleak House night (yes, as in Charles Dickens) one must wear 'Vivienne Westwood urchin-look' with 'gruel bowls and utensils'. You can just imagine what Klingon Women Night (an actual theme night) must have looked like.

The regular clientele came attired often in the theme of the evening -- Rimbaud night, Hasidic hip-hop, Hooker's Ball, even supermodel disasters night.

Jackie 60 even had a monthly poetry reading at midnight, with verse delivered from the most painted of lips. Satellite Jackie events included theatrical productions (with one written by Michael Musto) and spinoff parties (Click + Drag, a cyber themed soiree in the days before iPods).

But what was easily their most celebrated event was the Night of a Thousand Stevies, a yearly gathering where hundreds of Stevie Nicks fans from around the country descended on that little hole in the Meatpacking District to worship their favorite songstress. Men and women, young and old, beautiful and not-so, for one night each year, the cobblestone streets were filled with swirling shawls and tambourines.

Jackie 60 closed on the last Tuesday of the 20th century, but the Night of a Thousand Stevies parties live on every May, as do other events in the Jackie 60 brand. In these days of nightlife homogeny, the kids at Jackie 60 just look better with age.

A loving tribute with tons of photos can be found here, or visit their official tribute site and one from Mother.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Lots of LOVE to go around

So this past weekend I was in Philadelphia -- yes, I know, what's a Bowery Boy doing there? -- and in my jaunt around the city came upon one of its most famous landmarks, the Robert Indiana LOVE sculpture in Love Park. And, like a typical New Yorker, I looked at this thing, elevated off the ground on a platform, and thought, "Hmmm, that's smaller than New York's on Sixth Avenue."

Indiana gave the city of Philadelphia one of his sculptures in 1976 for the bicentennial celebration, and citizens immediately took a liking to it. But Indiana is far more associated with New York and its pop art scene, with a focus on commercial signage and stencilling. The LOVE logo first popped up on a Christmas card for the Museum of Modern Art in 1964, and its first sculptural form came two years later at the Stable Gallery at 33 East 74th Street -- an important showcase for pop art that in a former location actually had been a horse stable.

And not to make either city feel totally unspecial or anything, but Indiana has LOVE sculptures up in New Orleans, Las Vegas, Indianapolis, and on many college campuses throughout the US. There's even a few scattered around the world, West Shinjuku in Tokyo probably being the farthest he's spread the LOVE.

And if for whatever reason New Yorkers get tired of the one that sits at 55th Street, they can always go to Pratt Institute in the heart of the Clinton Hill neighborhood in Brooklyn, where sits a version in far greener pastures:

But Philly's LOVE is probably the best presented of all the Indiana statues, situated as it is close to a beautiful fountain at the foot of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, the city's tree-lined avenue of museums.

Meanwhile, New York's LOVE neighbors a Citibank, a Bank of America, and a Commerce Bank. *sigh*

I love Philadelphia by the way, and if youre in New York, its only an hour and a half away by train.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

PODCAST: Coney Island - The Golden Age

The Coney Island that greeted vacationers and city folk in the years 1904 to 1911 was one of infinite imagination manifested in fantastic but cheaply built extravaganza.

A world of amusement starts here in New York -- Coney Island, the world's oldest and strangest collection of amusement parks, a mishmash of sideshows, concession stands, gambling halls, new-fangled rides and luxury hotels. Take a daytrip with us back to the early days of Coney Island. Hold on to your hat!

Listen to it for free on iTunes or other podcasting services. Or you can download or listen to it HERE

Part of what made the experience of Coney Island's cheap, often disposable thrills was its meshing of new technology, human invention, and reactions to a strict moral society. It was socially acceptable debauchery, literally plugged in to the experience of a new century. The advent of electricity brought visitors out into the salty air until late at night. Benches were often sent slight electrical charges to make sure people didn't sit around all day, not spending money! With electricity used more aestheticly as it was in Luna Park (right), they could light up the sky like Oz. The name Luna Park paid homage to A Trip To The Moon, a ride created by its parks owners Frederick Thompson and Elmer "Skip" Dundy, which in turn was certainly a close approximation of the French 1902 silent film classic by Georges Méliès.

Over at Steeplechase Park, meanwhile, it was more centrifugal and gravitational forces that brought out the crowds, such as the Human Roulette wheel below. I dont know, there's just something about this that looks profoundly unfun to me:

One of the more unusual amusements at Dreamland was Hell's Gate, which emulated via the guise of starched Victorian morality the possible geography of Biblical Hell. Perhaps unsurpring, it was the combination of a burst lightbulb and a tar bucket inside Hell's Gate that started the fire that eventually burned all of Dreamland to the ground in 1911, burning for 18 hours.

The proper entrepreneur who could maneuver through the early days of Coney Island corruption and make a financial killing. Take the inventer of the hot dog, Charles Feltman, who launched restaurants and hotels from the success of his sausage in a roll carts. This fancy restaurant, a favorite of vacationers of all social classes, sat where modern Astroland sits today:

(Not to spoil anything from our next episode, but in 1915, an employee of Feltman's Restaurant Nathan Handwerker ate free hot dogs all summer, then devised an idea....)

Why stay in a luxury hotel when you can just sleep in a giant elephant? This unusual lodging was built in 1882, just a few steps from the world's first roller coaster, the Switchback Railway, and you could view the beach revelers via windows that served as the elephant's eyes. One leg featured a small cigar store, while the back legs had a staircase that led to your room. Perhaps because this doesnt exactly look like the most comfortable revolution in hospitality, the hotel soon became a favorite for prostitues, so that 'seeing the elephant' soon became a rather naughty euphemism. Our shabby pachyderm was mercifully put out of its misery in 1896 by fire. I love this aerial view of the area, with the Elephant lording clumsily over the landscape, well before the Island's peak days a few years later.

Elephants in general didnt fare so well in Coney Island. Then there's the case of Topsy, the once friendly elephant at Luna Park who went wild and killed three men. Her owners decided to put her down, attempting to poison her with cyanide-laced carrots, to no avail.

Enter Thomas Edison, who was trying to prove the dangers of his rival George Westinghouse's alternating electrical current to his own 'safe' direct current. He did this by going around the country and electricuting dogs and cats as a demonstration. So when he heard that the owners of Luna were trying to off their elephant, he couldnt refuse.

They even made the 'demonstration' the topic of a silent film, which you can see here.

By the way, there are so many resources online about early Coney Island history, that I invite you to check a few of these wonderful places out yourself:

Coney Island History Project
Amusement Parks history
Coney Island History Site

And in case you don't believe me about that sideshow exhibit involving premie babies in incubators, here's a shot of some of the nurses displaying the stars of the show, followed by a look at the actual incubators. The exhibit actually ran for decades in Coney Island, until 1945. You know, because there's nothing more entertaining than watching a newborn infant struggling to survive:

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Back on Wednesday!

Sorry the blog's been a little dormant. Its been a tad insane here in Bowery land. We'll be back up and running on Wednesday morning, with an "in pictures" segment of this week's podcast. Thanks for listening!

Friday, August 24, 2007

FRIDAY NIGHT FEVER: The Electric Circus

To get you in the mood for the weekend, every Friday we'll be celebrating 'FRIDAY NIGHT FEVER', featuring an old New York nightlife haunt, from the dance halls of 19th Century Bowery, to the massive warehouse spaces of the mid-90s. Past entries can be found here

No Chipotle burrito and taco restaurant has ever made me as sad as the one that sits on St Marks Place. I can't be overdramatic and say that every instance of gentrification is a bad one, but this particular case, standing next door to a gourmet grocery store, is a bit more notable than most.

For it stands in the place a former clubhouse and dance hall built all the way back in the 1830s but reached its culture preeminence just over 40 years ago.

The building's backstory sets a juicy notoriety for its later events, as it was a rowdy 19th century meeting place for political and ethnic dissents, throwing yearly carnivals in the street (often mocking the political giant of the day, such as Boss Tweed) and sparking at least one bloody gunfight in 1914 between rival Italian and Jewish gangs!

It sat through some of the 20th century as the Polish National Home (Polski Dom Narodowy), a community hall and restaurant for Polish New Yorkers (whose influences can still be seen all around this area of the East Village). At a certain point in the 1960s, part of the space was opened as a small bar by Stanley Tolkin, whose watering hole Stanley's Bar at 13th and Ave B was already a huge magnet for the bohemian set.

The bar at St. Marks Place attracted the same crowd and, now being 1966, eventually drew the interest of Andy Warhol who, with his film-making collaborator Paul Morrissey, rented the upper rooms from Tolkin, fancied the original Polish name (Andy was of Polish descent) and its new moniker "the Dom," moved in on April 1966 for a series of legendary events he would collectively called "the Exploding Plastic Inevitable."

It became the East Village fuse box for Warhol's talents and those of his entourage, in particular the Velvet Underground and Nico. The dazzling synthesis of psychedelica and glamour, of the Velvet's strange atmospheric music and Warhol's performance displays of lights and costumes, immediately attracted the scenesters to this odd little street -- according to the New York Times, "everyone from hippies to Tom Wolfe and George Plimpton" -- way before St. Marks would make its reputation in the 1970s with the punk scene.

Warhol moved on, and the name would change for a short time to the Balloon Farm. The next year it was sold to Jerry Brandt, who decided to take the avant garde (but rather elitist) Warholian approach and mainstream it into the Electric Circus. The new incarnation helped  define the wild visual and colorful aesthetic of the hippie 60s, a virtual overload of light machines and live music. Sometimes it took its name seriously:

"A young man with the moon and stars painted on his back soars overhead on a
silver trapeze, and a ring juggler manipulates colored hoops and shaggy hippies
who unconcernedly perform a pagan tribal dance...Stoboscopic lights flicker over
the dancers, breaking up their movements into a jerky parody of an old-time
Chaplin movie."

-- Radical Rags: Fashions of the Sixties (New York:
Abbeville Press, 1990)

And while audiences pulsated to the swirling lights, in the throes of LSD, bands would materialize onstage, often in long jam sessions. It should be no surprise to find out that early incarnations of the Grateful Dead and the Blue Oyster Cult got their start here.

Much as the psychedelic revolution itself died out once the next decade started, so too did the Electric Circus. In March 1970, a bomb exploded on the dance floor (!) injuring 17 people, which couldn't have done much for its waning popularity.

It was eventually turned into a church-run craft center and a community center for substance abusers and the homeless through the 80s and into the 90s. As gentrification swept through the East Village, most of St. Marks remained intact; you can still find rows of punk tee-shirt shops, tattoo and piercing parlors, St. Marks Comics and Kim's Video.

What you can't find is the remnants of the Electric Circus. The building is now the aforementioned Chipotle and a grocery store. And in one corner -- in a move that is either a throwback to its old days or the biggest slap in the face in the world -- is a gift store that sells branded products from CBGB's, another legendary East Village rock club that has since been closed.

Here's what it looked like when I first moved to the city:

(I apologize, I have a few links to post where I got some of my information, but I can't do it from this computer. However some information was obtained at the excellent New York blog: I'll post the links when I get back on Monday. Have a great weekend!!)

Thursday, August 23, 2007

The Headless Horseman and the New York elite

Another colorful New Yorker died earlier this week, the Cruella Deville of real estate, Leona Helmsley, the Queen of Mean. With her passes a dynasty of wealth and power derived from her husband Herman, whose properties included the Empire State Building, the Flatiron building and more than 30 hotels.

Brooke Astor, elder survivor of the powerful Astor family, passed on the week before, and she and Leona have many things in common. Oh sure, Brooke was our fair city's greatest philanthropist, and later the embodiment of a sick old matron taken advantage of by her progenitors, while Leona was a snarl-lipped, homophobic tax evader who encapsulated the follies of New York greed unlike any other. But you can't go a few blocks in this city without seeing either of their family influences.

Another thing they have in common is that they're buried not more than a couple hundred feet from each other. And that's not even the strange part. Let's throw in a little Tim Burton twist. They're both buried at the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery which, despite its creepy legend, has become the 'hot' resting place for the richest dead New Yorkers.

To tie this ever further into our week here at the Bowery Boys, they join another well known New Yorker, the man who financed the Chrysler Building, Walter Chrysler.

The village of Sleepy Hollow is just thirty miles north of Manhattan and might seem a strange place for so many of New York's great power players. Others interred there include moguls (Andrew Carnegie, William Rockefeller, Henry Villard), entrepreneurs (Elizabeth Arden) publishers (Whitelaw Reid), and film producers (Mark Hellinger).

And let's not forget its most famous resident, Washington Irving. Irving is actually buried next door in the Old Dutch Burying Ground, a far creepier place and the purported final home of many of the people who inspired the tale of Ichabod Crane (not to mention the ground in which the Headless Horseman supposedly appears!) But Sleepy Hollow Cemetery was Irving's idea, and it's because of his original plan that the burial ground has attracted so many rich and famous.

I think it best to include here the text of a letter Irving wrote to a newspaper editor in 1849 regarding this particular plot of land, for it encapsulates the cemetery's appeal:

"I send you herewith a plan of a rural cemetery projected by some of the worthies of Tarrytown, on the woody hills adjacent to the Sleepy Hollow Church. I have no pecuniary interest in it, yet I hope it may succeed, as it will keep that beautiful and umbrageous neighborhood sacred from the anti-poetical and all-leveling axe. Besides, I trust that I shall one day lay my bones there.

The projectors are plain matter-of-fact men, but are already, I believe, aware of the blunder which they have committed in naming it the “Tarrytown,” instead of the “Sleepy Hollow” Cemetery. The latter name would have been enough of itself to secure the patronage of all desirous of sleeping quietly in their graves."

While Irving certainly divined the tranquil beauty here as a sanctuary of peace, he may not have realized that his presence nearby -- and the legacy of his tale "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" -- would have upped the value of the real estate, something Leona would have been proud of.

Mrs. Helmsley built a massive 1,300-square-foot mausoleum for herself and her husband, whose remains she moved from the Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.

She needed special permission from the village to build the $1.4 million tomb, which features Manhattan-themed stained glass windows, Japanese maple trees, and 12 Greek columns. It's almost as if she meant to dwarf the actual Rockefeller estate which is nearby. Some of her fellow multi-millionaires must be rolling in their expensive graves.

By the way, there's actually another Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Massachusetts that also has an impressive lists of permanent guests -- Nathaniel Hawthorne, Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau .

Here's a peek at Irving's Sleepy Hollow, which I highly recommend visiting, naturally around fall:

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

PODCAST: The Chrysler Building

Ah, the classic Chrysler Building! She's got style, glamour and all that jazz. But what magical surprise did she spring on New York in October of 1929? Join us as we tell the story of New York's most beautiful art deco treasure.

Listen to it for free on iTunes or other podcasting services. Or you can download or listen to it HERE

The picture above is of famed photographer Margaret Bourke-White, who had an studio on the 61st floor of the Chrysler. Her iconic photographs of the building helped create the building's mystique as a sleek, magical tower. Of course later, as a correspondent for Life Magazine, she became one of the most intregal documenters of World War II, particularly the bombing of Moscow.

One unusual aspect of the Chrysler building is that it's 'something you look up at'. At street level and for several floors up, its a rather drab structure. In fact there are many buildings nearby that exhibit a far more striking art-deco style at street level, including the Chanin Building just across the street, and the Daily News Building a block away.

But the top of the Chrysler more than makes up for it, with its silver spire and repetitions of triangular sunbursts draped in silver nickel steel (a specialty metal called Nirosta designed by the German company Krupp). The real punch of the Chrysler at night comes with these triangular windows, with their almost crown-like appearance, which pierce the night and create truly dramatic scenes on foggy evenings.

Photo at right: Courtesy Frank Jermann, Voelzberg, Germany 

 The Cloud Room, a swanky nightclub and speakeasy in the 30s, occupied the top floors until the 1970s. As with many things in New York at that time, the building fell into disrepair in the 70s and 80s; thankfully much of its luster has been returned thanks to the current owners Tishman Speyer. Given the recent trend of restoring New York landmarks to their former glory, might we see a return of the Cloud Room in the near future?

Van Alen was racing to build the Chrysler Building before his former estranged business partner H. Craig Severance finished with the building down at 40 Wall Street. Severance finished first, but Van Alen stole his thunder by erecting the Chrysler spire which pushed its height above 1,000 feet.

The 40 Wall Street building, still impressive but far less ornate, has had a rather rocky history. Referred to as the "Crown Jewel of Wall Street," it held the title of world's tallest building for all of four days. At one time known as the Bank of Manhattan Trust Building, it was hit by a Coast Guard plane in 1946, killing four people. In the 90s it was bought by Donald Trump, who funded extensive renovations and turned it all to commercial space. It's actually called The Trump Building now. The American Express headquarters is housed here. According to Real Estate Weekly, 40 Wall Street is the tallest mid-block building in the world, which I guess has some sort of cache.

Incidentally, a former 40 Wall Street building which stood in its spot was office to the first president of the New York Stock and Exchange Board when it was first organized in 1817.

As for the Severance's former partner, Van Alen did bask in a brief fame as architect of the Chrysler, despite Walter Chrysler's refusal to pay him the remainer of his commission for the project due to bribery. Perhaps strangely, his most circulated photograph actually has him dressed up as the Chrysler Building. The event was the 1931 Beaux-Arts Ball for the Society of Beaux-Arts Architects. Van Alen was a student in Paris' École des Beaux-Arts and was a regular attendent at these high-class and often rowdy functions. This New York Times article gives a thorough recap of the event. But just to put it in perspective, many architects came that year dressed as the buildings they created, including William F. Lamb as his newly constructed Empire State Building. The jovial bunch is featured below:

And finally, I apologize for giving short shrift on the podcast to the work of Edward Turnbull, who painted the brilliantly colored ceiling mural in the lobby of the Chrysler Building.

A mixture of Sistine Chapel magnificence and perhaps a bit of prescient Communist-esque propaganda, "Transport and Human Endeavor" is actually one of the largest indoor murals in the world, displaying an enthusiasm for American progress and mechanical ingenuity. Lit in the warm glow bouncing off the marbled wall and oak floor, the mural hides many fascinating details full of blimps, airplanes and automobiles. Just make sure you dont stumble over one of the building security guards as you look upwards.

You can find another lovely picture of it here directory

Monday, August 20, 2007

UNUSUAL NYC MUSEUMS: History Underground

Our tribute to an off-the-beaten-path museum or landmark that you may not know about. Instead of MoMa, why not try out one of these places? Past entries in this series can be found here.

Okay, I know I'm stretching when I call the NYC Transit Museum 'off the beaten path'. Its advertised in every available form of transit, and city guides all feature it. However what makes it unusual is the format in which they present their collection.

First of all, its actually in a subway station, the former Court Street station of the Fulton line. Built in 1936, it was in service for all of ten years, closed because many trains are already available in the area; you can catch the 2, 3, A, C, E, F, B, D, N, 4 and 5 trains within just a few blocks. So yeah, they didn't need it. It remained unused until the museum opened in 1976.

Like all museums I particularly fancy, the Transit Museum has an awkward, slightly out-of-date charm to it. Partially because the newest addition -- On the Streets: New York's Trolleys and Buses, featuring interactive displays -- is situated last, you get an immediate assault of nostalgia, both in the things presented and in how things are presented.

This isn't a complaint. Each exhibit should have its own feel. You go immediately into Steel, Stone & Backbone: Building New York's Subways 1900-1925, displaying photos and placards in a low-ceilinged display to give you (perhaps too well) that claustrophobic feeling of digging a subway tunnel.

Things open up considerably from there. Waiting outside is a depiction of tokens through history, as well as various styles of turnstiles:

On the lighter side is a fun display of children's transit-themed toys throughout past two centuries. Here's one that must have delighted some kid with a penchant for the circus:

To my surprise, I discovered some artifacts that I could easily have found in my parents garage. (NOTE TO TRANSIT MUSEUM CURATOR: I'm pretty sure my folks still have my Fisher-Price Sesame Street scene if you need it).

After briefly perusing the exhibit on the Triborough Bridge and some transit-themed paintings, I was ready for the really fun stuff. On the Streets is a particularly kid-friendly display, with sections on city smog, a timeline of horse-drawn conveyances, a day in the life of a city bus driver, not to mention a real live city bus without chewing gum on the seats!

For some reason I was totally transfixed by a display of mini-traincars, which appeared to be more an artistic installation than an actual historical display:

Past the buses and trolleys is a room full of tables (presumably for kids parties) and walls of old signage dating from the first subways. As a geeky lover of fonts and designs, I wanted to snatch some of these off the wall and take them home with me:

Easily the Transit Museum's best feature, the 'sexiest' part -- worth the cost of admission alone (a whopping five bucks!) -- are the presentation of 19 original subway cars, from the very first one up to the 1980s. You actually go down into a subway tunnel, and there they are lined up.

You don't think that going in and out of empty subway cars would be all that fun. But oh, my friends, you would be wrong.

Every decade apparently had a color scheme they thought would be pleasing and natural to the morning commuter. For instance take this car from the 1940s:

Each car is decorated with advertisements from the era and each has been preserved excellently. All they're really missing is graffiti and a weird smell.

The cars from the 70s were of a particular treat, as with a few alterations, they could have been used on a 70s sci-fi television show like Buck Rogers:

You also realize how perceptions of comfort have had to cave to the necessities of maintenance. Take this view of one of the first train cars ever used, from 1904. The seats inside were comfy and plush, and the entire room had a feel of your grandmother's parlor.

It's for this reason that I think life-long, jaded New Yorkers would get a kick out of the Transit Museum, and why it's a must stop for visitors. Its a fitting tribute to the biggest, and one of the oldest, transportation systems in the world.

Most unintentionally funny part: voice-over announcements of events at the museum are as muffled and unclear as any service change in the regular subway!

Check here for information on hours and direction.They also have an easily accessed annex at Grand Central Station, although it clearly doesnt have all the subway cars.

One weird scavenger hunt

Bowling Green is now a small, pleasant fountained park at the foot of the Alexander Hamilton Custom House (now the National Museum of the American Indian). Its blooming flowers and quiet charm completely mask its significance to American history. For in the Colonial era, this area, once a cattle market, was the meeting place of disgruntled colonists who wished to vent their anti-British rage in protests and speeches.

This is primarily because of something the British happened to prop up there in 1770: a stark, imposing statue of King George on horseback, lording over his subjects in a pose of battle. Imagine your oppressor looking down at you just steps from your home and business, and you can easily see why it became the centerpiece for protest.

George Washington and his troops were stationed in New York in July of 1776, in the midst of a war with the British. Five days after it was drafted, Washington read the newly minted Declaration of Independence to his troops in the city's common area (today's City Hall Park).  They became so incensed with patriotism that the mob moved down to Bowling Green and tore down the King George statue.

The intention was to turn the entire thing into bullets to fire back at the British. However only a small amount were used for this purpose.

The head was cut off and within the a day was stolen by British sympathizers and ferried back to England. To this day, nobody knows where the head is.

The other pieces, it seems, have been the subject of an elaborate hunt for historians, who are attempting to account for every possible piece of what is certainly one of the most maligned pieces of statuary in history. Its fragments have seemingly been scattered all over New England.

Fifty years after its dismantling, a farmer found King George's saddle in his backyard pond. Much later, George's left arm was found there, shipped to Canada, and lost. A plumber inherited the foreleg, almost melted it down, then bequeathed it to his daughter. Other families along the East Coast seemed to possess little parts of it -- the mane, part of the cloak, the horse's tail -- many of them with a few Tory sympathizers in their ancestry.

The New York Historical Society possesses many of these fragments, though many others are presumably still popping up. Perhaps this might give you an excuse to visit your grandmother's attic? A thorough outline of the investigation can be found here.

One irony is that many statues of George Washington on horseback look rather similar to the unfortunate one of King George.

I'd love to see an angry mob try to move this, standing just feet away from where mean ole King George once stood:

Friday, August 17, 2007


To get you in the mood for the weekend, every Friday we'll be celebrating 'FRIDAY NIGHT FEVER', featuring an old New York nightlife haunt, from the dance halls of 19th Century Bowery, to the massive warehouse spaces of the mid-90s. Past entries can be found here

We're reaching way back for this week's entry, to the heyday of New York nightlife, the 1920s, when prohibition hardly prohibited anything. The underground speakeasy The 300 Club at 151 W. 54th Street was one of the most successful, despite being raided many, many times, and all because of one scrappy, lovable dame. 

Ladies and gents, I give you New York's reigning queen of nightlife, Ms. Mary Louise Cecilia -- but the boys call her  "Texas" Guinan.

Born in Waco in 1884 to Irish immigrants, she coined her nickname on the youth rodeo circuit, then ran off to New York for a short stint in vaudeville. Her cornfed, bawdy charms caught the eye of a movie scout who rustled her to Hollywood, where she became the silent era's first movie cowgirl, starring in a string of corny Westerns -- The Girl Sherriff, The White Squaw, The School M'arm, Little Miss Deputy.

But New York lured her back, where saloon owner Larry Fay (his speakeasy El Fey Club was on West 47th) convinced her to crack open her own establishment. And the 300 Club* was born.

The bar practically bristled with Guinan's outsized personality. Its relatively small size worked in its advantage, especially as 40 fan dancers flew from the wings and had to basically dance in the aisles, to the delight of those tippling the bar's illegal sauce.

Texas was always around greeting customers with her signature slogans, "Hello, Suckers! Come on in and leave your wallet on the bar!" and "Give the little ladies a great big hand!"

It wasn't just the underbelly of New York captivated by Texas' charms. The toast of the town often popped by to ogle at her dancing beauties, including Rudolph Valentino, Gloria Swanson and Pola Negri. Young composer George Gershwin would sometimes leap to the piano and pound out a ragtime. She also took a young Walter Winschel under her wing, a man who would later become the most influential gossip columnist of the 1930s and 40s.

With all that attention, it's no surprise the club was perpetually raided. Guinan never once admitted she sold liquor, claiming her hundreds of customers had brought it in with them. According to one adoring fan site:

"Legend has it that the joint was raided one night when the Prince of Wales was there. She popped an apron on him and hid him in the kitchen, washing dishes."

After a few weeks she would reopen, and the party would begin again. Occasionally, she would have to move to different locations, and reopen under different names (Salon Royale, Club Intime, the Argonaut), but she always returned W. 54th Street, where the legends of the jazz age were bred.

It ended a little too soon for Texas. The Great Depression rolled over her good fortunes, and she attempted to take her show on the road, touring the United States. (She even attempted to take it to Europe and was denied a permit to perform in France due to Texas' notorious reputation.) While in Vancouver, she contracted dysentery and died in Nov 5, 1933, age 49.

The tales of her midtown speakeasys have helped to shape our entire perception of New York in the 20s, with its excess and abandon. Guinan herself lived on as an primary influence to Mae West. In fact Guinan was actually considered for West's debut role in the film Night After Night in 1932.

(By the way, today is Mae West's birthday.)

You can still have a drink at Guinan's speakeasy Club Intime; the space where she once entertained New York's greatest is now the champagne bar Flute . The location of the 300 Club has been turned into The London luxury hotel.

She literally was the end of an era; the day after she died, the US government repealed prohibition.

Texas Guinan lives on in an incredibly exhaustive blog in her honor and in reruns of Star Trek: the Next Generation (Whoopi Goldberg's bartender character is named after her). Who knows what mayhem Texas would be getting herself into if she were alive today.

*I admit I couldnt find anything on why it was called the 300 Club, however it could be because when customers would ask her how many films she had made in Hollywood, she always answered, "About 300 of 'em." Even though it was more like a couple dozen.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

PODCAST: Central Park Zoo

From an odd assortment of abandoned creatures, to one of the most notorious zoos in the world, take a tour with us through Central Park's storybook zoo.

Listen to it for free on iTunes or other podcasting services. Or you can download or listen to it HERE

In the podcast I erroneously stated that a famous political cartoon using the Central Park Zoo as a political metaphor also featured Ulysses S Grant depicted as an ass. Perhaps that was some sort of Freudian partisan comment, because Grant himself is not in the cartoon, although it is about his alleged 'Caesarism', running for president for a third term back when it was constitutionally possible -- but untraditional -- to do so.

The ass in the cartoon below actually represents the New York Herald, the flagrant publication which ran the article on the Central Park Hoax as well as coining the phrase 'Caesarism'.

The cast of the Zoo is featured (hmm, I didnt realize the Zoo had unicorns), as well as an elephant representing the republican vote, being scared off by the Herald's bombastic opinions on Grant. This is the origin of the elephant as the symbol of the Republican Party:

Now, onto the Menagerie! This postcard nicely displays the early collection's unplanned evolution:

Before the Arsenal served as headquarters of the city park service and anchor to the Zoo, it was the temporary location of the Natural History Museum as well as workspace for paleontologists and their dinosaur skeletons.

Part of the zoo's rebirth in the 80s included the restoration of the Delacorte Clock, a throwback to grandiose European clock design that greets each hour with a parade of dancing animals and tinkling music. It was a gift of George Delacorte, founder of Dell Publishing Company, who also graced Central Park with a theatre and statuary depicting Alice In Wonderland. Over forty years old, the clock and its tinny nursery rhymes can be actually be heard from Fifth Avenue if you listen closely enough.

Although close in style, the nearby Dancing Goat fountain sculpture and its companion Honey Bear are actually from the 1930s, where they once flanked a lavish cafeteria inside the zoo that was demolished in the 80s to make way for the rain forest.

And a couple of our celebrity stars of the zoo:

Patty Cake and her mother were quite the sensation in the early 70s. The first gorilla ever born at New York, she was named in a much publicized newspaper competition, and ever since, she has unquestionably been the city's most famous gorilla.

Most baby gorillas are actually taken from their parents to be nursed, however Patty was cared for by both her parents, Lulu and daddy Kongo. Her father eventually fell on her, breaking her arm, and she was eventually transferred for a time to the Bronx Zoo. Her custody battle between the two zoos was even covered by Time Magazine.

Now as a permanent resident of the Bronx Zoo, queen of the Congo Gorilla Forest, at age 35, Patty is a proud mother of nine, including two rare twins, Nngoma and Tambo. And like any New York society diva, she's also had four husbands.

In spirit, she's also doing her share to stop gorilla poaching in Africa, through a charity called 'The Pattycake Fund'.

Gus, the no-longer-depressed polar bear, was really diagnosed by an animal behaviorist with psycotic tendencies, and the animals plight was so publicized that he made the cover of Newsday, significant coverage on CNN, and somebody actually wrote a play about him. Changes to Gus' habitat were soon made, including better water circulation, and Gus' mood has improved substantially. And anyway, why should he be depressed? He has two wives -- Ida and Lily.

And finally take a gander at this painting from the mid 19th century of Central Park in its wilder days. The building in the back is the castle-like Arsenal, before a menagerie started appearing.